There’s an unfortunate amount of pressure and focus on losing weight and being “thin” in many countries these days. And though most of us do want to look and feel our best, the appearance-based, weight loss culture is one we hope is soon a thing of the past. After all, everybody and every body is beautiful and worthy of love and respect regardless of size and shape. It's important to remember that your beauty and value is never contingent on your weight, your body composition, or how you look. With that said, there are times you may want to tone up and lose fat, and even if that’s just because you want to look your best, fat loss can be a perfectly valid goal.
But, we want to ensure that any efforts to lose weight or tone up are safe, healthy, and sustainable. The diet industry is flooded with unhealthy, ineffective, and sometimes even potentially dangerous fads and crash diets that put our bodies in stressful and unsustainable conditions. There’s also an overabundance of misinformation and weight loss myths. Even the term “weight loss” is a bit of a misnomer. Most of us are specifically looking to lose excess body fat, not weight in general (which technically includes bone, muscle, nerves, blood, organs, etc.). So, we turned to a nutrition and fitness expert who specializes in helping individuals optimize their lifestyle, dietary, and exercise practices for overall health and wellness. We picked her brain for all the best practices to promote fat loss and toning up so we can feel healthy, strong, and confident in our bodies.
So, read on for 11 sensible and sustainable habits and tips to help you tone up, burn fat, and look and feel your best.
Meet the Expert
Eating snacks between meals has the potential to prevent overeating come mealtime because it helps keep your blood sugar levels stable and the hormones that regulate your appetite in check. However, the quality of the snacks you choose will impact the satiety factor they provide—some snacks will give you that feeling of fullness until the next meal, while others only provide very temporary sustenance. Research indicates that high-protein, high-fiber snacks are far superior to sugary and fatty ones when it comes to tiding you over until your next meal. Opt for choices like yogurt with berries and flaxseeds, hard-boiled eggs and a few nuts, or hummus and vegetables, and leave packaged, highly-processed options like granola bars, applesauce cups, and chips on the shelf.
Aim for at least 20 grams of protein and 4 grams of fiber in each snack.
Incorporate Weight Training
“You may think weight training is pointless since it doesn’t burn as many calories as cardio exercise, but it’s important to follow a varied workout routine for fat loss,” notes Rizzo. “Incorporating weight training makes you stronger, which may make you more powerful and able to workout at higher intensities. This could lead to more efficient workouts and more fat loss.” By building lean muscle mass, you’ll also increase your metabolic rate, which means you’ll burn more calories even at rest. Strength training can also optimize the hormonal balance in your body to put your body into more of a fat-burning, muscle-building mode rather than a fat-storing mode.
“It’s a given that you burn calories when doing cardio workouts. If your cardio routine is lacking, definitely try to incorporate some form of cardio at least 3-4 times per week,” advises Rizzo. The good news is that the choices are plentiful, so there’s something for everyone. And, engaging in a variety of cardio exercises will not only keep things fresh and fun, but will also help prevent overuse injuries. Consider power walking, running, spinning or cycling, swimming, dancing, rowing, the elliptical trainer, rollerblading, and jump rope to name a few. For an extra calorie-torching boost, throw in high-intensity intervals to really elevate the burn.
Get Enough Sleep
Rizzo notes that the association between sleep and weight gain has been well-studied and demonstrated across a variety of studies and conditions. For example, a large study found that nurses who slept five hours or less per night had higher BMIs and increased weight gain over those who slept six, who were also not as well off as those who slept seven or more. “Scientists believe that lack of sleep may cause disturbances in appetite-controlling hormones; in other words, not sleeping enough can make you feel hungrier and eat more throughout the day,” explains Rizzo. “Also, when you’re tired, you tend to crave high fat, sugary, and processed foods. Getting enough sleep (at least 7 hours per night) is crucial for eating a healthy diet and losing fat.”
Get Enough Fiber
“Fiber is a critical nutrient for fat loss because it helps with appetite control,” explains Rizzo. This is because fiber contributes bulk to your diet without a significant number of calories, helping physically fill you up. This can translate to eating smaller portions of higher-calorie, denser foods. Additionally, fiber can help you stay fuller longer, so that you’re not grabbing for your next snack before you’ve even burned through the calories from your last meal. “Fiber is quite abundant in low-calorie nutrient-dense foods, like fruits, vegetables, beans, and legumes,” adds Rizzo. “If you replace the processed foods in your diet with fiber-rich whole foods, there’s a good chance you will lose weight.” And, the research backs up Rizzo’s advice—in a weight loss study involving overweight individuals, those who ate more fiber lost more weight.
Incorporate Probiotics into Your Diet
Supplementation with probiotics has become an increasingly popular wellness strategy in the past several years. And with good reason: probiotics provide a variety of health benefits from improving digestion, to elevating mood, to boosting the immune system. And, they may even help you lose weight. A randomized-controlled research study found that supplementation with probiotics for six months resulted in significant weight loss, and a reduction in BMI and waist circumference even when diet and exercise habits stayed the same. Whether you opt for probiotics in supplement form, or choose probiotic-rich foods like yogurt, kefir, kimchi, and sauerkraut, probiotics might be worth a shot. If nothing else, you’ll repopulate your gut with healthy bacterial flora.
Don’t Drink All Your Calories
“Many drinks contribute empty calories to the diet, meaning that they don’t add much nutrition other than calories and sugar, and for someone who is trying to lose weight, cutting back on calories is the key to doing so,” explains Rizzo. “An easy way to reduce your caloric intake is to avoid drinks like soda, sweetened ice tea or lemonade, or juices with added sugar. While they may taste good, they don’t fill you up.” Plus, research has found that sweetened beverages disproportionately increase visceral abdominal fat, the type that poses the greatest health risk. This means that your waist line, and your health, will take a big hit from a soda or juice habit. Rizzo advises drinking water or unsweetened tea, and reserving calories for nutritious foods that fuel the body and promote a healthy metabolism.
Try Intermittent Fasting
Intermittent fasting is a diet strategy that involves having deliberately extended periods of time without consuming calories, followed by measured blocks of time when you are able to eat. The thought is that the body will adapt during the fasting times by burning more body fat, and by restricting the window of time when you can eat, fewer calories will be ingested, promoting weight loss.
Intermittent fasting can be a controversial weight management tip because restricting or withholding food or fuel for your body can lead to an unhealthy relationship with food. For that reason, we strongly encourage you to consult your doctor and a dietician or nutritionist before trying this strategy. Plus, intermittent fasting can take on a variety of forms and eating patterns, and trained professionals would best be able to help you establish what might make sense for your body. With that said, research does indicate intermittent fasting can be an effective strategy for fat loss and overall weight reduction.
Cut Down on Alcohol Intake
That glass of wine or two, or your favorite cocktail, may seem harmless enough, but don’t forget that alcohol contains calories. If you’re trying to lose body fat, alcohol is a good thing to nix because it can also slow your metabolism and lead to weight gain in some individuals. “Although you may be drinking to unwind or have a good time, overdoing it on alcohol can sabotage your weight loss goals. While you’re trying to promote fat loss, you’ll want to keep the alcohol intake to a minimum,” advises Rizzo. “You don’t need to give it up entirely, but stick to drinking on special occasions, rather than every weekend night.”
Sip Green Tea
If you’re a coffee drinker, consider swapping it for green tea to satisfy your caffeine fix. Green tea has long been lauded as a healthy beverage due to its high antioxidant concentration. And, as it turns out, it also can help you burn fat and lose weight. Research has found that regular consumption of green tea can reduce abdominal fat, and the subsequent risk of metabolic syndrome.
Lower Your Stress Levels
Our lives are busy and we face a lot of pressures and challenges, making stress an unfortunately common occurrence. And, it’s not only unpleasant and emotionally taxing—it can affect your waist line and your health, too. “It’s no secret that stress can trigger some people to eat more,” says Rizzo. “For those who are prone to emotional eating, excess stress can cause you to reach for food to soothe your nerves.” Rizzo says the first step in rectifying this issue is recognizing comfort eating as a coping mechanism you’re leaning on. “Although reducing stress is very difficult, it’s important to recognize if you turn to foods in times of stress. If so, think about whether or not eating that food will really help you feel better,” she says. “More often than not, the answer to your stress problems is not food.”
Though eating to alleviate stress is a direct way that stress can cause weight gain, even if you don’t tend to turn to food to cope, stress alone can impact your weight. Cortisol, a stress hormone, tends to signal the body to store fat, so it’s important for everyone to try and lower their stress levels. Healthy coping mechanisms can include a variety of hobbies and activities such as journaling, yoga, walking, meditating, breathwork, crafts or coloring, social time, other exercise, etc.
Njike VY, Smith TM, Shuval O, Shuval K, Edshteyn I, Kalantari V, Yaroch AL. Snack Food, Satiety, and Weight. Adv Nutr. 2016 Sep 15;7(5):866-78.
Patel, S. R., Malhotra, A., White, D. P., Gottlieb, D. J., & Hu, F. B. (2006). Association between reduced sleep and weight gain in women. American journal of epidemiology, 164(10), 947–954.
Miketinas, D. C., Bray, G. A., Beyl, R. A., Ryan, D. H., Sacks, F. M., & Champagne, C. M. (2019). Fiber Intake Predicts Weight Loss and Dietary Adherence in Adults Consuming Calorie-Restricted Diets: The POUNDS Lost (Preventing Overweight Using Novel Dietary Strategies) Study. The Journal of nutrition, 149(10), 1742–1748.
Michael, D.R., Jack, A.A., Masetti, G. et al. (2020). A randomised controlled study shows supplementation of overweight and obese adults with lactobacilli and bifidobacteria reduces bodyweight and improves well-being. Sci Rep 10, 4183.
Ma, J., Sloan, M., Fox, C. S., Hoffmann, U., Smith, C. E., Saltzman, E., Rogers, G. T., Jacques, P. F., & McKeown, N. M. (2014). Sugar-Sweetened Beverage Consumption is Associated with Abdominal Fat Partitioning in Healthy Adults. The Journal of Nutrition, 144(8), 1283–1290.
Rynders, C. A., Thomas, E. A., Zaman, A., Pan, Z., Catenacci, V. A., & Melanson, E. L. (2019). Effectiveness of Intermittent Fasting and Time-Restricted Feeding Compared to Continuous Energy Restriction for Weight Loss. Nutrients, 11(10), 2442.
Traversy, G., & Chaput, J. P. (2015). Alcohol Consumption and Obesity: An Update. Current obesity reports, 4(1), 122–130.
Hibi M, Takase H, Iwasaki M, Osaki N, Katsuragi Y. (2018). Efficacy of Tea catechin-rich Beverages to Reduce Abdominal Adiposity and Metabolic Syndrome Risks in Obese and Overweight Subjects: A Pooled Analysis of 6 Human Trials. Nutr Res. 2018 Jul;55:1-10.